A Latter-Day Rip Van Winkle Emerges, Blinking, Into the Post-Virus World

A Latter-Day Rip Van Winkle Emerges, Blinking, Into the Post-Virus World
Daniel Thorson went into a silent retreat in mid-March, meditating through 75 coronavirus news cycles, Boris Johnson’s hospitalization, social distancing and sourdough starter. Now he’s catching up.Daniel Thorson outside the cabin where he just finished a 75-day silent meditation retreat at the Monastic Academy in Lowell, Vt.Credit...Jacob Hannah for The New York TimesPublished June 2,…

Daniel Thorson went into a silent retreat in mid-March, meditating through 75 coronavirus news cycles, Boris Johnson’s hospitalization, social distancing and sourdough starter. Now he’s catching up.

Credit…Jacob Hannah for The New York Times

Ellen Barry

On the morning of May 23, Daniel Thorson rejoined society after an absence of two and a half months.

He had spent that time in silent meditation in a cabin in remote northwestern Vermont, where he is part of a Buddhist monastic community. During his 75 days in isolation, his hair had grown out. The last snow of winter had melted, and the trees had budded. Frogs had come out of hibernation and begun peeping.

Mr. Thorson, a podcaster and enthusiastic online philosopher, had also missed 75 news cycles. And so, less than two hours after ending his silent retreat, Mr. Thorson logged back onto Twitter.

“Did I miss anything?” he wrote.

The last week was a strange one for Mr. Thorson, 33, a staff member at the Monastic Academy, as he tried to catch up with the changes that had taken place during his absence.

He learned of Boris Johnson’s hospitalization — and his recovery. He learned that meatpacking plants had emerged as pockets of infection and death. He learned that his cousin had met her new love interest on a social-distance dating website. And that there is now such a thing as a Zoom channel devoted to ecstatic dance.

Re-engaging — with his mom, with the supermarket, with the internet — was at times intensely pleasurable. Other times it was just intense. He had trouble sleeping.

People wanted to talk to him. They compared him to Rip Van Winkle, the fictional character who falls asleep in the Catskills and wakes up 20 years later to discover that his beard is a foot long and the United States is no longer ruled by the British Crown.

It stunned him to discover that the many and various topics that interested him — global warming, electoral politics, the health care system — had been subsumed by a single topic of conversation, the coronavirus.

“While I was on retreat, there was a collective traumatic emotional experience that I was not a part of,” he said, on the second day. “To what degree do I have to piece it back together?”

Mr. Thorson is not the kind of Buddhist to shy from current events.

After graduating from college, he was an organizer for Occupy Wall Street, camping in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and engaging with pedestrians. He logged a few years with the Buddhist Geeks movement, promoting the use of online technology for enlightenment seeking. His podcast, “Emerge,” seeks to explore “the next phase of the human experiment.”

So he was eager, after ending his 75 days of silence, to see what was going on in the world.

“I was thinking, is it going to be ‘Mad Max’ out there, like are we the last survivors?” he said. “How is humanity doing?”

After leaving the meditation center, the first evidence he saw was a gas station, and people coming in and out wearing shorts, a scene so characteristic of northern Vermont that he was deeply reassured.

“It’s Vermont,” he said. “Somebody’s getting gas.”

But a new set of impressions followed. He ventured into a Shaw’s supermarket eager for human contact, and what he found instead was anxiety. When he passed people, their eyes darted around, as if they were scanning for threats. One thing that seemed to scare them was Mr. Thorson, who had not gotten the hang of social distancing.

“I would turn a corner in the grocery store, and someone would be there, and they would recoil,” he said. “I haven’t installed the Covid operating system. At first, I was, like, ‘Whoa, what did I do?’”

He had looked forward to plunging back into his online world, a setting he had always found “nourishing.”

But when he reviewed two and a half months of posts from people he admires, he found, to his shock, that they were only talking about one thing. “Everything else is gone,” he said. “There’s nothing about the election! It’s amazing! The Australian wildfires, what happened there? Didn’t Brexit happen?”

But there was nothing close to a consensus.

“Everybody has extremely strongly held, very different opinions about everything: how dangerous it is, what the response should have been, how it’s going, whether or not we need to isolate, how to treat it if you get it,” he said. “There is one consensus proposition that, it seems to me, everybody holds. It’s that whatever happened in the last three months is one of the most significant events in modern history.”

Talking through the preceding months, he often felt he had stumbled into something painful, conflicts that dated back to March or April.

“People are so desperate to make sense of it,” he said.

And it was true, he had missed a lot of friction, even in the ideological bubble of a Buddhist monastic community in Vermont. In mid-March, Soryu Forall, the group’s head teacher, had just begun a weeklong silent retreat with a larger group of students. They had just ended communication with their families and the internet when state governments began banning large gatherings and advising people to stay home.

  • Updated June 2, 2020

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      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      More than 40 million people — the equivalent of 1 in 4 U.S. workers — have filed for unemployment benefits since the pandemic took hold. One in five who were working in February reported losing a job or being furloughed in March or the beginning of April, data from a Federal Reserve survey released on May 14 showed, and that pain was highly concentrated among low earners. Fully 39 percent of former workers living in a household earning $40,000 or less lost work, compared with 13 percent in those making more than $100,000, a Fed official said.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


He began to get emails and phone calls from his students’ families, insisting that he end the silent retreat. “Everyone wanted their children to come home immediately,” Mr. Forall said.

But he refused, saying they should be allowed to finish their week of silence.

“It was painful for the parents, painful for me,” he said. “It was a very strenuous time.”

He said he valued Mr. Thorson’s perspective precisely because he had not lived through it.

“His clarity is just what the world needs now,” he said. “He’s been hit by all of it in one wave.”

And it was true: In his first days out, Mr. Thorson found himself in demand, the subject of intense curiosity.

“I feel like an oddity, I feel like a curiosity,” he said. “I don’t know what they expect me to say.”

Part of him wonders whether he needs to catch up on the clamor and dispute of the last months at all. And so he has taken a few small steps back, particularly from the internet. He has begun to regard his phone use, he said on “The Stoa,” a philosophy podcast, with fear.

“This whole thing is a hell of a drug,” he said. “It really, really, really has an impact on my nervous system.”

On Day 3 after he returned to the modern world, Mr. Thorson restored color to the screen of his mobile phone, which had been locked in gray scale throughout his retreat. But he found that the colors now hurt his eyes. “The red on the phone is nothing like the red of a flower,” he said. “It was a kind of super-stimulating thing.”

And so, on Day 4, he set it back to gray scale, and that is where it has remained.

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